Wran­gling in Brus­sels is kick­ing off to­day

Gen­tle EU de­par­ture favoured

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Robert Hutton

CHAN­CEL­LOR of the Ex­che­quer Philip Ham­mond said Bri­tain should aim for a gen­tle de­par­ture from the EU, an ex­plicit chal­lenge to the con­fronta­tional strat­egy adopted by the now weak­ened Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May.

Bri­tish of­fi­cials travel to Brus­sels to­day to for­mally start the EU de­par­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions, amid con­fu­sion over whether the gov­ern­ment is go­ing to change its pri­or­i­ties af­ter fail­ing to win voter en­dorse­ment in the June 8 elec­tion. At home, May is strug­gling to stay in of­fice as her Con­ser­va­tive Party ques­tions both her elec­tion strat­egy and her han­dling of a Lon­don tower block fire that has left scores dead.

Asked on the BBC how long May would keep her job, Ham­mond swerved the ques­tion. “What the coun­try needs now is a pe­riod of calm while we get on with the job in hand,” he said on the “An­drew Marr Show” yes­ter­day. “Theresa is lead­ing the gov­ern­ment.”

Im­pli­ca­tions

May’s gov­ern­ment is still work­ing out the im­pli­ca­tions of the shock elec­tion re­sult, which saw her Tory party lose its ma­jor­ity. On Wed­nes­day, its leg­isla­tive pro­gramme will be set out by Queen El­iz­a­beth II at the open­ing of par­lia­ment. With­out the votes to force bills through par­lia­ment, May is opt­ing for an un­usual two-year ses­sion, to give her­self time to pass Brexit leg­is­la­tion.

Yes­ter­day’s UK news­pa­pers con­tained re­ports of pos­si­ble lead­er­ship chal­lenges to the prime min­is­ter. Tory law­mak­ers are weigh­ing whether the dam­age in­volved in re­plac­ing her would be greater than the risk of keep­ing her in place.

Mean­while May has moved to quell crit­i­cism that she was slow to re­spond to the fa­tal Gren­fell Tower apart­ment block fire in West Lon­don. On Satur­day, she met sur­vivors, and later ac­knowl­edged fail­ings in the way dif­fer­ent branches of gov­ern­ment re­sponded. “The sup­port on the ground for fam­i­lies who needed help or ba­sic in­for­ma­tion in the ini­tial hours af­ter this ap­palling dis­as­ter was not good enough,” she said.

Jeremy Cor­byn, leader of the op­po­si­tion Labour Party, im­plied the prob­lem was a lack of com­pas­sion on May’s part. “I think ev­ery­body cares to an ex­tent, some to a deeper ex­tent,” he said on ITV. “And some show em­pa­thy in a dif­fer­ent way to oth­ers.”

But even if May can stay in place, her weak­ness was demon­strated by the free­dom with which Ham­mond crit­i­cised her Brexit pol­icy. Hav­ing said on Fri­day that Brexit needed to be han­dled in a “prag­matic” way, yes­ter­day he said Bri­tain would still be leav­ing the EU’s cus­toms union, but “tran­si­tional struc­tures” would be needed to smooth de­par­ture.

Ham­mond re­jected the slo­gan ‘no deal is bet­ter than a bad deal’, which May re­peat­edly used dur­ing the elec­tion.

Ham­mond is due to give his an­nual Man­sion House speech on the econ­omy to­mor­row. It was de­layed from Thurs­day af­ter the fire. He’s plan­ning to use the oc­ca­sion to push back against hard­line Brexit rhetoric. But he said this didn’t mean stay­ing in­side ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions.

“The ques­tion is not whether we’re leav­ing the cus­toms union,” Ham­mond said. “The ques­tion is what do we put in its place.”

He re­it­er­ated the gov­ern­ment’s goals of avoid­ing a hard bor­der with Ire­land, which will re­main in the bloc, and al­low­ing goods to move freely be­tween the UK and the EU.

And he said it was “a state­ment of com­mon sense” that “we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge.”

Ham­mond re­jected the slo­gan ‘no deal is bet­ter than a bad deal’, which May re­peat­edly used dur­ing the elec­tion. which May re­peat­edly used dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. – Bloomberg

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